The 50th anniversary of Japan Karatedo Itosu-kai
An Interview with Itosu-ryu 3rd Soke Ryusho Sakagami
Itosu-ryu 4th Soke Sadaaki Sakagami
and Itosu-kai Supreme Adviser Hiroyuki Miura
From the book "The history of 50 years of Itosu-kai"
Interviewed in 1992
The interview was held in 1992 for a privately published book “The history of 50 years of Itosu-kai.”
It was conducted to some members of the board of directors, but we would like to pick up some parts from the whole article for our English website, focusing on the interview with Late Grand Master Ryusho Sakagami, Late IKIF supervisor Hiroyuki Miura, and the current Soke and President Sadaaki Sakagami.
Master Ryusho Sakagami, firstly I would like to ask you to talk about your memories of when you started teaching karate at your house in Kawanishi city, Hyogo prefecture in 1940.
I’m not sure but I think it was March 1940. Almost nobody knew karate back then. I practiced kata such as Seienchin by myself in the back yard of my house or in the grounds of shrines. Passersby saw me and asked what I was doing. I replied that it was karate and they asked me to teach them, so eventually two or three people came to practice together with me.
Do you remember the name of those people?
I don’t remember too well, but I do remember one of them. His name was Mr. Iwata and he lived in the Minami-Hanayashiki district in Kawanishi city.
From 1940 I was working as a kendo teacher at a school attended by Mr. Masaru Watanae, the founder of Shito-ryu Seiki-kai. However, there was no dojo at the school, so I had to lecture on kendo in a classroom, and I also talked about karate. Some students were interested in it and they also asked me to teach them, saying “Sounds like a good martial art, please teach me!”
What kind of instruction did you give them?
I taught in the Sumiyoshi area, in the grounds of Sumiyoshi shrine. I had about 10 students. I gave very strict lessons, telling them “If you don’t like it, just quit!” I kicked them and beat them with a shinai (bamboo sword) but they got better this way.
And who is the oldest member of Itosu-kai now?
That’s Mr. Miura. He’s the oldest in our organization.
Sensei Miura, can you talk about what kind of practice you did back then?
It was 1943 when I saw karate very first time. Master Ryusho Sakagami was teaching Kendo at Ikeda High School. It was right before Sensei Masaru Watanabe (the founder of Shito-ryu Seikikai) was drafted for Military Service. He brought Sensei Watanabe to my school and they had the first karate demonstration. Master Sakagami was very young and full of energy. He broke boards a lot, and it left a big impression on me. After that, we couldn’t study at school because of WWII and being drafted, but after the war we were allowed to practice karate again* and I visited Master Sakagami’s house in 1947. At that time, the sign on the dojo said ‘Mabuni Jikiden Shito-ryu Karatedo Shinan Sakagami Dojo (Directly instructed by Mabuni, Shito-ryu Karatedo Instruction, Sakagami Dojo)’. I started practicing karate with my friend Mr. Araki at Master Sakagami’s house.
(*After WWII, during the American occupation of Japan, martial arts practice was prohibited by the US government, but eventually karate was allowed.)
We take it for granted that we practice karate on a wooden floor, but did you practice on the ground instead of a wooden floor back then?
There was no dojo at the time. Even at Great Grand Master Kenwa Mabuni’s house, we practiced in a normal room.
When did you start using a wooden floored room for practice?
It was around 1957 or 1958. As far as I know there were only a few wooden floored dojos such as those of Master Masaru Watanabe, Master Chojiro Tani (the founder of Tani-ha Shito-ryu Shuko-kai) and Master Nozoe.
I heard that you practiced kata and repeated Kihon (basics) back then, but what exactly did you practice?
We focused on Kata, but one of our members, Mr. Kudai practiced karate at Kansai University as well and he knew a sort of free sparring. At the time, Master Ryusho Sakagami also taught karate at Kansai University, so some University students came to our dojo and they taught me this free sparring too.
At first you guys practiced on the ground, focusing on kata, but you started practicing free sparring Kumite and it became a sport. Then people started using footwork. In the end, a wooden floored dojo became more popular. It that correct?
No. Not like that. We knew a wooden floor was best, but we just didn’t have it.
Sensei Sadaaki Sakagami, do you have any memories from those days?
I remember Sensei Miura and some others came to my house to practice in the back yard. They hung a ball from the top of a gate and kicked it. They also used the wheel of a trolley for weightlifting. These are vague memories. Now nobody knows that there was no wooden floored dojo back then. There wasn’t even a karate dojo. I heard that some people practiced wearing rain boots. An instructor beat students with a bamboo sword. Now everything is different from how it was then.
Why did you start practicing karate, Sensei Miura?
As I told you before, we were not allowed to practice martial arts for a while after WWII. I was in third grade in high school at the time. Some people from the Military Academy were very violent in the streets and they beat us up, so I wanted to be strong to protect myself from them. Karate left a huge impression on me when Master Sakagami gave a demonstration at my school, so I joined the club right away. Also, we were still not allowed to practice kendo and judo at the time.
At that time, Sensei Miura and other students were still young lads and they trained with Master Ryusho Sakagami. What did you think of them, Master Sakagami?
I was a very strict instructor, but they pulled through.
Master Ryusho Sakagami, why did you start practicing karate?
It was 1929. I was a freshman in high school. My parents run a Sake bar and an Okinawan man often came to drink there. I was 14 or 15 at the time and this man saw that I liked martial arts, so he told me about his local Okinawan martial art called ‘Te’. He introduced me to a karate sensei**. He introduced me to a karate Sensei and I started learning, but my serious practice began in 1935 after I enrolled in Kokushikan University. I was practicing ‘Te’ in the corner of the University dojo when a friend of mine, Mr. Ishikawa from Okinawa, asked me “Isn’t that karate?” I said that I didn’t know, but I had learned it from a man from Okinawa. He told me that it was indeed called karate, and his father was actually a karate teacher in Okinawa. I then started practicing karate at master Moden Yabiku’s place in Sazauka, Tokyo with my friend Ishikawa, although my major in University was Kendo. Back then it was still called ‘Te’, not ‘Karate’.
(**Master Ryusho Sakagami’s first karate teacher was called Master Tamagusuku. He was a master of Tomari-te.)
You received the Renshi title from “Dai Nippon Butoku-kai” (Great Japan Virtue of Martial Arts Organization) in 1944. At that time what kind of status did karate have in the organization?
I received the title in karate, but the old ‘Dai Nippon Buto-kai’ (President: Prime Minister Hideki Tojo) didn’t include karate as part of it. They had a judo department and they released karate titles from the division. When I received the title of Renshi, the decision was made by judo instructors. Master Chojum Miyagi (Goju-ryu founder) received the title of Kyoshi, and Master Gichin Funakoshi also received the title of Renshi, but Master Sannosuke Ueshima (Kushin-ryu founder) and Master Yasuhiro Konishi (Shindo Jinen-ryu founder) received both Renshi and Kyoshi titles on the same day. ***Master Chojun Miyagi was equal to them as Kyoshi, so he went to Master Kenwa Mabuni and complained about it. This showed that the judo instructors didn’t understand karate. They promoted Master Ueshima and Konishi to the title of Kyoshi, meaning they could be examiners, and along with other judo instructors they could examine karate practitioners.
(***Master Chojun Miyagi and Master Gichin Funakoshi actually taught everyone else, but they were treated as if they had equal or lower status, so Master Miyagi was upset about it.)
Sensei Sadaaki Sakagami. If you have any memories from 1945 until 1951, please talk about them.
My father had a business. Before WWII he was a school teacher and he taught Kendo, Modern Japanese and Chinese Classics, but he quit this job because his parents ran a business and needed his help as the eldest son. However he didn’t like the business and occasionally went out to teach karate by himself.
Sensei Miura, do you have any memories from this period?
When I joined Master Sakagami’s club it was around 1947, and we were not able to practice outside. However in 1949 this changed and karate became popular after that. I demonstrated with Master Ryusho Sakagami at many festivals held at shrines and temples such as Kanshin-ji temple in Kawachi-Nagano city and Nanko shrine in Minatogawa. To promote karate I demonstrated a kata and its application, and I also showed Shiwari (board breaking). We also demonstrated at many kendo dojos, including the dojo of Takashimaya department store.
Can you explain a little more about the period when martial arts were prohibited, Sensei Sadaaki Sakagami?
We were actually not allowed to practice Budo (martial arts) in public from 1945 till 1952. It was the period of the decline of all of Japanese martial arts. We hid and practiced karate.
Master Ryusho Sakagami, could you talk about the details of you succeeding Master Kenwa Mabuni to the position of Itosu-ryu style 3rd generation in 1952?
At the end of December 1951 I visited Master Mabuni’s house. He asked me to be the successor of the Shito-ryu style. At first I refused his proposal because he had a son, but on January 2nd I visited him again for New Year’s Greeting and he asked me again. Again I refused because he had a son, and I asked him to make his son the successor of the style, so he said “Okay then, instead would you please be the successor of my teacher, Anko Itosu, otherwise his orthodox lineage will die out after I pass away.” He then officially appointed me as the 3rd generation successor of Master Anko Itosu. He passed away not long after on May 23rd 1952.
Sensei Miura, did you also practice with Master Kenwa Mabuni?
Yes, I also went to Honbu dojo (Master Kenwa Mabuni’s dojo) occasionally from 1950.
Master Ryusho Sakagami, I want to double check your position when you succeeded to Itosu-ryu style. Was your title Shuseki Shihan (Chief Shihan)?
Well, there was no such name as Shuseki Shihan then. But it is true that I was teaching students who came to Master Kenwa Mabuni’s dojo.
Who was practicing at Master Mabuni’s dojo at that time?
I remember Tomoyori (Kenyu-ryu founder), Hase (Shito-ryu Shisei-kai), Miura, Sawayama (Nippon Kenpo Founder), Umemoto, Tsujikawa (ex-supervisor of Shito-kai), Sakio (ex-president of Shito-kai), Fujitani (Founder of Fujitani-ha Shito-ryu), Nishikawa and Kanegawa from Okinawa.
So, you were the lead instructor at Master Mabuni’s dojo from around 1950 – 1951.
Yes, I was. I was just like Shuseki Shihan (Chief Shihan).
Sensei Miura, when you had your own dojo, was it around 1952 or 1953?
After Master Ryusho Sakagami moved to Tokyo, there was nowhere for the remaining students to practice, so we started practicing at my house in 1953.
So, Sensei Sadaaki Sakagami, do you, in short, consider those days as the early period of Itosu-kai?
Yes, maybe, it was the earliest period of Itosu-kai. In 1953, our family moved to Tokyo to open a karate club, but we were tricked and lost everything. We had no money. Our family stayed at my father’s friend’s house from his Kokushikan University days. We were drifters for about half a year. Finally, we started using an old garage in May 1954, putting a wooden floor on the ground. And then, in August 1954, we opened the “Nihon Genbu-kan Karate Dojo” (Japan Genbu-kan Karate School. / Currently Japan Karatedo Itosu-kai.)
When did the old Shihan Senseis (Master Licensed Instructors) start practicing karate in Itosu-kai?
Most of the Shihan started in 1953 or 1954.
Master Ryusho Sakagami, you started practicing Kendo and Iaido in your childhood. In establishing your own karatedo, do you think those martial arts were helpful?
Because I practiced kendo, my karate improved. Because I practiced karate, my kendo also improved. Since I started practicing aikido, my kendo got better. I also applied some ideas from aikido to karate. If you practice other martial arts, you can see your own karate very well. I put kendo techniques into my karate, and also aikido techniques, however people who practice only karate think that karate is the best. People who practice only kendo think kendo is best. But actually even if you practice kendo, you can’t cut even bamboo; you don’t even know how to use a real sword. Every martial art has both good and bad points; I have collected all the good points of various martial arts and kept them for my own practice. They are very helpful. If you practice, it’s better to practice any martial art, and they’re all very good for you.
Master Ryusho Sakagami practiced various martial arts and he also promoted Itosu-ryu style Karate. In the end, we had the first Itosu-kai national karate championships in 1964. Now sports karate has become popular. Sensei Miura, what do you think about Itosu-kai’s katas after tournaments became popular?
We are very proud that Itosu-kai’s kata is the most orthodox and solid. You can tell wherever you go. Many outsiders also tell us this. We are very proud of it. Preserving those traditional katas in Itosu-kai will further the development of our organization.
Do you have any ideas on this subject, Master Ryusho Sakagami?
In the end, I would like to ask you something. For the development of Itosu-kai, I want you to hold regular kata seminars and to have a united point of view. If instructors’ techniques are not solid, our karate will fracture in different directions. I have taught Great Master Kenwa Mabuni’s katas without modification. That’s why I published a book called ‘Karatedo Kata Taikan’. I want you to study more. A tournament kata is for a tournament. I want you to distinguish Itosu-ryu’s kata from the tournament style. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that an old kata is wrong.
Thank you very much for your time and for sharing a very interesting story. Itosu-kai’s precious 50 years’ history will be a foundation for our future, and it will be passed down to the next generation. Thank you very much again.